The late Charlie Hennigan would have loved Adam Thielen.
That’s good to know, but, uh, who the heck was Charlie Hennigan?
Well, for starters, Charlie Hennigan is the only player in the NFL record book to start a season with seven consecutive 100-yard receiving games. Thielen can tie that mark when the Vikings visit the Jets on Sunday.
Secondly, Hennigan was the Adam Thielen of yesteryear in terms of a small-school nobody seizing a sliver of opportunity and becoming a big-league somebody.
Undrafted by the NFL out of Northwestern (La.) State in 1958, the 6-1, 187-pounder tried the CFL. He lasted one month with the Edmonton Eskimos.
He was done with football. Back in Louisiana, he was teaching high school biology and making less than $3,000 a year.
In 1960, the upstart American Football League needed players for a new brand of football. Hennigan hitchhiked from Louisiana to Houston to try out for Bud Adams’ Oilers.
He got the job. But few noticed. The news of the day was Adams outbidding the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams for Billy Cannon, the LSU running back, 1959 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick.
John McClain, a longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and one of the country’s most respected NFL reporters, was 8 years old in 1960. Living in Waco, he was 90 miles from Dallas, where the expansion Cowboys were going 0-11-1 in the NFL, and 180 miles from Houston, where the Oilers and 33-year-old quarterback George Blanda were slinging the ball all over the yard en route to the AFL’s first two titles.
“We were crazy about the Cowboys, but they didn’t win a game and they wouldn’t throw the ball,” McClain said. “CBS showed the Cowboys. NBC put on this new American Football League, and the whole idea was to not just be 3 yards and a cloud of dust. They were fun to watch.”
It was a forward-thinking concept that would force a merger with the NFL a decade later. And with that merger came the AFL’s statistics.
And, boy oh boy, did the Oilers put up futuristic numbers. A five-time All-Star and member of the AFL’s all-time team, Hennigan’s 1,746 yards receiving in 1961 stood as a record until Jerry Rice had 1,848 yards 34 years later.
Blanda, the future Hall of Famer, was the key. Having already played 10 seasons with the Bears, he was retired in 1959, but came back and played 16 more years, until he was 48.
“George wanted to throw it every down, and he had a lot of pull with the coaches,” said receiver Bill Groman, who still lives in the Houston area. “And Charlie and I were ex-track guys. I was a 100- and 220-yard sprinter. He was a quarter-miler. He went to LSU on a track scholarship but transferred when they wouldn’t let him play football.
“I came from an even smaller school, Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. But you couldn’t double either one of us or the other would make you pay.”
Groman had 50 catches for 1,175 (23.5 average) and 17 touchdowns in 1961. Hennigan, who died last December, had 12 touchdowns and averaged 21.3 yards on 82 catches. His 10 100-yard games in a 14-game season stood until 1995, when Michael Irvin had 11 in a 16-game season.
But Hennigan’s three 200-yard games that year still stand as a record. So does Groman’s mark of 27 receiving touchdowns in his first 25 games.
As a team, the ’61 Oilers started 1-3-1 before firing coach Lou Rymkus. They replaced him with former assistant Wally Lemm, who had retired after the 1960 AFL title game, and didn’t lose another game that season.
“After Lemm took over, Blanda and those receivers really took off,” McClain said. “And this was a time when they didn’t have all the rules protecting the receivers. Hennigan and Groman were one of the greatest receiving duos in history.”
Hennigan’s historic start has gone untouched for 56 seasons. Thielen can catch him on Sunday.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: email@example.com